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Two siblings in Tamil Nadu’s Coimbatore district suffocated to death in an incident of manual scavenging while cleaning up a septic tank near the city. While cleaning the clogged septic tank pit, the brothers died of asphyxiation in Thiru Nagar near Singanallur.
33-year-old N Murugan and his sibling, A Pandi Durai, were employed by the residents of Thiru Nagar Housing Unit for unclogging a septic tank which collects the refuse from 48 houses.
At a certain point, Murugan was attempting to forcefully open the clog inside the tank, and Pandi Durai, on the other hand, was taking a look inside the mouth of the drain that is connected to the septic tank. Murugan, at around 4 PM, pushed into the septic tank the refuse that was collected, releasing toxic gases. As soon as he inhaled the gases, he lost consciousness and slipped into the drain. On witnessing the incident, his brother rushed to help him, but he too inhaled the gases and slipped into the drain.
S Sureshkumar, another man working there, saw what happened and raised an alarm, reported The New Indian Express.
After residents called the police, and fire and rescue service, the fire personnel reached first and retrieved the bodies. When Singanallur police made inquiries, nobody came up with the name of the employer. The Coimbatore Medical College Hospital received the bodies for autopsy. For the past five years, Murugan a sanitary worker in Coimbatore Corporation, and has two children.
“It is a public tank in Ward No 59. We have registered a case under Section 304A of the Indian Penal Code (causing death by negligence) and Section 7/9 of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act,” a police officer told The News Minute.
Reportedly, the siblings were not wearing any safety gear. Employers who continue to employ people to engage in manual scavenging are explicitly penalised by Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act. It is the work of the local authorities to ensure that manual scavenging does not take place.
However, presently, this act covers insanitary latrines but does not cover acts in which labourers have to enter the tanks.
This tragic incident once again brought to the fore manual scavenging, which continues in certain places despite being banned since 1993. In 2018, five people including a woman died allegedly due to asphyxiation while they were inside a septic tank at a house in Chhattisgarh’s Jashpur district.
Back in 2016, a 19-year-old teen lost his life to manual scavenging while trying to unblock a sewer line in Villupuram in Tamil Nadu. It was the second such incident in the state within a week. Before that, four people lost their life due to being asphyxiated in a similar task.
Again, in 2018, two manual scavengers died due to asphyxiation while cleaning a manhole in Bangalore. The incident occurred when two manual scavengers entered a septic tank of a restaurant in AECS layout in Whitefield. In 2017, three sanitation workers have died due to asphyxiation while cleaning a Department of Delhi Jal Board (DJB) drain in South-east Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar. In the same year, four sanitation workers in Madhya Pradesh have died of asphyxiation while cleaning a septic tank at Bardu village of Dewas district.
These are only a few incidents of death during manual scavenging. Hundreds of people have lost their lives to this modern day evil.
Manual scavenging is banned in India. Any contact between excreta and a labourer employed to unclog a drainage pipe or sewage treatment plant is prohibited by law and the occurrence of such a trespass or the non-provision of safety gear or disinfectants to the labourer will lead to the prosecution of the contractor and the employer.
In March 2014, the Supreme Court declared that there were 96 lakh dry latrines being manually emptied. And as per reports received from the States and Union Territories in 2016, 12,226 manual scavengers have been identified so far.
According to a report tabled in the Rajya Sabha in 2016, 22,327 lose their lives every year due to manual scavenging. The Supreme Court had directed authorities to pay a sum of Rs 10 lakh to the affected families; however, the families had received only about Rs 60,000.
However, manual scavenging still survives in parts of India without proper sewage systems or safe faecal sludge management practices. Moreover, the Prohibition of Manual Scavengers Act has not been implemented properly as manual scavenging continues and manual scavengers continue to die.
The major reason for the continued existence of manual scavenging is because of unsanitary latrines. These are latrines without water, where the excreta must be physically removed. Another major contributor to the continued existence of this crime is the Indian Railways. Many train carriages have toilets dropping the excreta from trains on the tracks; scavengers are employed to clean these tracks manually.
A letter was sent to the Delhi government on January 21, 2019, by the National Human Rights Commission, over the death of a contractual sanitation worker who died in Wazirabad while cleaning a drain. A notice was issued to the Delhi Chief Secretary, asking him to submit a detailed report of the death as well as similar incidents in the last two years. The report should further specify the legal action taken against those who employed the worker and made him work without head protection. Steps taken to stop such incidents in the future should also be mentioned, reported The New Indian Express.
Tamil Nadu being the state where most number of deaths of manual scavengers are reported, Manhar Valibhai Zala, the Chairperson of the National Commission for Manual Scavengers (NCSK-National Commission for Safai Karamcharis) and the members from the associations of manual scavengers across the state was arranged in Chennai on January 21, 2019 in Chennai.
Even though manual scavenging is banned in the country, incidents like these are still coming to light. In the meeting, Zala said that a survey will be ordered to find out the people involved in all kinds of manual scavenging, and the stipends issued, medical insurance, regular medical checkups, proper sanitation equipment provided manual scavengers will be monitored, reported Mirror Now.
Manual scavenging is modern-day slavery. That it continues in 21st century India is something that should horrify and outrage us all. It is one of the deadliest jobs one can be involved in. At the same time, it is important that we ensure that further deaths due to manual scavenging do not occur.
The Prohibition of Manual Scavengers Act should be implemented with more efficiency; the governments at the centre and the states should establish that manual scavenging will not be tolerated and lawbreakers will be punished. Also, alternate means of employment should be generated for the impoverished people who are forced to become manual scavengers due to lack of alternatives means of livelihood.
The most harrowing part is that despite knowing that manual scavenging in banned, people still employ scavengers to clean their drains and tanks. It is important to care for the lives of people who work for us, and even more important to ensure that no one has to get involved in something so deadly that it might take their life.
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